It began as a joke, a little game we’d play. Ella and I would be in bed in the morning, just waking up, and, every time, she’d be eager to do things.
"Not now,” I said on this particular morning just as I had the morning before and the one before that removing her slender left hand from under my boxer shorts.
Ella’s tone, typically, would be playful here, wry and sarcastic. This was a joke, it would indicate. A game. She was simply saying: Remember when we used to jump on each other in the mornings and hump like starved wildebeests? Who is this nervous, stuttering weirdo curled up next to me in the fetal position? That’s all. Ha ha. Very cute. The end.
Except in this instance, I noticed a slight but unmistakable shift in Ella’s manner: edgy, caustic; here was a new, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you, can-we-seriously-please-go-back-to-the-starved-wildebeest-humping kind of tone. Outside our apartment window the day was forming, a stunning one at that, sunlight ricocheting off polished surfaces, strange cars and people doing their thing, starting and stopping, emitting noise. Inside our apartment, unfortunately, was this.
Ella took a seat on my lap. She was naked.
"Could you move your head?” I said. "I can’t see the screen.”
My therapist, for the record, would have an explanation. Indeed, my therapist would most certainly bring up what she refers to as my "severe intimacy issues.” There she is, I can see her now: that sneer, the angry calm she exudes, twiddling her little pen, crossing and re-crossing her legs, and then explaining that my repeated failures at work were "breeding a cycle of perpetual self-loathing,” that had "inhibited my self-confidence,” making me feel "hopelessly inadequate,” thus rendering intimacy "impossible.” Her voice sounds automated, synthetic. Her clothes are ironed to the point where they look made of cardboard. Intimacy, my therapist would then let me know, is "a fragile equilibrium,” one that’s "sustained through time and patience.” Finally, my therapist would look me straight in the eye, which is something that makes me feel jittery and small, and sternly add that my "chronic maternal hang-ups” certainly weren’t helping matters, either.
But what’s that, really? Jargon. Psychobabble. The words of a bitter woman (I believe she is single) with too many post-graduate degrees whom Ella suggested I better start seeing or else. And so I was alone, left grasping at straws, or whatever that expression is — I can never remember — forced to search for an explanation on my own.
And so, after a moment, I said, "Because.”
"Because because. What are you, eight years old all of a sudden?”
"No,” she said. "I’m thirty and at the peak of my sexual powers.”
"Hey,” I said.
"Stop that. You’ll make me feel hopelessly inadequate.”
"Hrumff,” she said, turning her smooth, sinewy back to me.
She sighed dramatically.
And I began to worry.
A week or so later, one morning, I was at the computer working. A little something to know about me as I tell you this story: I like my work. I like my computer. I like to sit and work at my computer for many, many hours. (I’m sitting there right now, as it happens, taking a break.) My work soothes; my work brings comfort. My work requires a seriousness and diligence that I, despite what my therapist deems my "repeated failures,” and what Ella deems the fact that "being unproductive is not rebelling against the productive class,” and what my mother deems "a sorry waste of human life,” take great pride in.
But now I’m getting off the subject, when really all I was trying to say is this: Before I was working, I was in bed with Ella, who again was itching to do things. There went her fervent hand, prying at the elastic lining of my boxer shorts, and there went my own, intercepting it. She whined; I winced.
"But why?” she asked, spitting the word out like it was something she swallowed by accident. My face twitched, my throat constricted, and I told her not now and retreated to my office to do some work before she could ask me again.
Ella entered a while later and took a seat on my lap. She was naked.
"Could you move your head?” I said. "I can’t see the screen.”
She said, "I just pleasured myself.”
Obviously, I didn’t hear her correctly. That was the first thought that tore through my mind just then. Sometimes, you see, I’ll get so involved in my work that I fail to hear people properly. Words become bleached, blurry, inaudible, irrelevant. Call it a problem. Call it, as my therapist does, a "fear-perpetuated denial of humanity.” Me, I call it loving what I do which, as everyone knows, is a rare thing in today’s world that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And so, still looking at the screen, I said, "Excuse me?”
"You heard me.”
"You did not.”
"I did too,” she said. "I figured you’d never catch me as long as I heard the keys going.”
I felt my heart beating behind my eyes. I felt every piece of dust floating in the air, colliding with my skin. And then, right there, seated at the computer, I began to picture Ella, pleasuring herself. Did I realize this was "destructive behavior?” I did. What can I say? I pictured her thighs to the point where it felt as if they’d somehow lodged themselves inside of me, burning a hole in my cheeks. I pictured the faintest crease of sweat forming between her perfect buttocks (which were now, remember, bare and parted on my right thigh). I pictured her pale pink lips: also perfect, also parting. I felt feverish. My throat seemed lined with burlap. I pictured my therapist shrewdly tapping her little pen against her skeletal kneecap, and informing me that I believed too innocently in "utopian perfection,” and too cynically in "real life.” My fingertips felt injected with liquid nitrogen. I took a deep breath. I pictured myself stabbing my therapist in her jugular with her stupid little pen, then piercing her cheek with the heel of her stiletto, if those are stilettos, I don’t know, so that she resembled a hooked, quivering trout. I counted to ten. And then I pictured Ella, perfect Ella, my Ella, her whole body, that fine hungry organism, shuddering perfectly under the sheets.
And I felt miserable.
And I had no idea what I was supposed to say.
"Well,” I said. "What am I supposed to say?”
But Ella, flustered and sated, didn’t seem to care one way or another.
"I guess you should get back to work,” she said coolly.
Without delving into the private details of our first meeting and the two years that had passed since then, let me simply say this: In the beginning things were different. Neighbors, to give one small example, had once called the police on us, not accustomed to hearing, through the walls of their apartment, two young people in love shouting, "Do the dagger thing!” or "I’ll show you a lion tamer!” or "I’m dead serious, if we killed my mother no one would care!”
During those first few months I could barely contain myself while, say, taking her out to dinner.
Ella would inform me that she had just pleasured herself, that between her legs was still very moist, if I cared to feel for myself.
That is Ella, I’d think, chewing a forkful of something finely prepared and overpriced. And she is really in this vaguely French bistro with you. And look at her: so striking, the kind of woman male minds furiously invent but never expect the opportunity to process in the flesh. And she is actually reaching across the table right now to touch your hand. Because she actually likes you.
All of which is the longhand version of: what was happening to us?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder about this for long — because, soon enough, things had settled into a manageable pattern, which felt, once again, like a joke, a little game, the way all manageable patterns somehow manage to do. There was our little morning ritual (Ella: "Please?” Me: "Later.”) and then, after a bit, Ella would meander into my office, face still flushed, and inform me that she had just pleasured herself, that she loved me and thought of me the whole time, all the positions from the old days, that she missed me dearly and hoped therapy was going well, that between her legs was still very moist, if I cared to feel for myself. No thanks, I’d say, I’m cool, and then she would calmly leave, and I would sit there, bemused, my imagination simmering, counting down to detonation.
And things began to improve.
For instance, one afternoon, twenty minutes after she’d left the office, I was so overwhelmed by these images parading through my mind that I decided to take a break from work. Let’s relax for a moment, I figured. Let’s breathe in, breathe out. Let’s enjoy the world I live in. And what better way to do so than by surfing the Internet? Mind you, this is a somewhat common activity in my life — I love my work, yes, but I’m not mad, and, besides, my therapist has often stressed that one of the many things I lack in life is sufficient "me time.” So I’ll take a breather, and I’ll search, say, sites giving me a more rounded perspective on international news, pertinent social issues, a biting commentary on world leaders anything to help me better grasp these confusing times in which we live.
During this break, however, I decided to take a slightly different approach.
What the hell, I figured, the world is unpredictable. Geopolitical strife will persist regardless. My America will always be comfortable enough. My girlfriend was just masturbating. And so I opted to type into the search engine whatever random phrase darted through my mind.
Which was: Wet young writhing pussy.
That night, in bed, after shutting off the light, Ella slithered over to me. She kissed my neck, bit tenderly on my earlobe, licked my chest, my navel. She promised, in a husky whisper than invoked in me a hazy, uncomfortable nostalgia, to do things that would, afterward, cause temporary blindness. She told me to prepare myself, and then she slid her hand under my boxer shorts. I was aroused, immensely aroused, but felt, simultaneously, consumed by guilt. For one, I’d been so uptight lately, so preoccupied with work, and here she was, so eager, so willing, as the expression goes. And perhaps more to the point: I found myself beginning to picture one of the hot and nasty pixilated vixens from earlier, which seemed flat-out blasphemous.
I pushed Ella away.
"That sounds really fun,” I said. "But maybe not now.”
"What’s happening to you?” she said.
"Not tonight,” I said.
The moment that phrase left my lips, I was sure this was it, the absolute end.
I felt short of breath, and looked around frantically for my inhaler. But then I remembered something: I am not asthmatic, and I do not use an inhaler. And then I remembered something else: that this time I could offer Ella a concise, honest, and viable explanation.
I said, "Because I just pleasured myself.”
"What? You did not.”
"I did too.”
"But you were working the whole time.”
"I took a break.”
"But you were in the office.”
"I looked at websites filled with naked women.”
I won’t lie to you. The moment that phrase left my lips, I was sure that this was it, the absolute end. It doesn’t take a profound grasp of humanity to know that a woman as beautiful as Ella is not, by the laws of nature and society, inclined to date a man who spends his days looking at hot and nasty pixilated vixens when there is a superior, enthusiastic, and able model in his own home, complete with responsive organs and active vocal cords and moving pupils. What was happening to me? What had I done? Ella was perfection, Ella I loved, and here I’d gone and ruined everything.
But then came Ella’s response.
"Show me,” she said.
"The girls,” she said. "The computer.”
Was I in the midst of an "anxiety-induced auditory hallucination,” something my therapist had repeatedly warned me about?
"Now,” Ella said.
I was not.
And so it began. What my therapist would come to describe as our "mutual recognition of the problem and mutual desire to seek remedy,” what my mother would call "sick and twisted,” what I would call, more simply, looking at the computer together for a bit — quality sites like teenwhores4u.com or thugsnvirgins.com or, my personal favorite, mommyslutsrus.com — and then going our separate ways to consummate the act. Ella would coyly scoot off to the bedroom, I’d stay there in the office, my boxer shorts knotted around my shins, mentally superimposing Ella’s parts with those of the vixens, and vice versa, amazed at the seemingly endless combinations that were possible.
It was around this time that I found myself, one spectacularly sunny afternoon, as all afternoons seem to be these days why is that, I have no idea — taking a walk, decompressing after a busy, if ultimately frustrating and unrewarding, day of work. I soaked up the weather as if my skin were made of solar panels. I tired to avoid eye contact with strangers. I passed an infant supply store in my neighborhood, a national chain called Toddler Ted’s Post-Embryonic Emporium. (I’m sure you know it.)
Immediately, I was captivated. My therapist, I’d imagine, would say that I was drawn to the shop because of the many talks Ella and I had had about having babies (Ella: "I want babies.” Me: "Not now”), but I’m personally convinced that it was something else that pulled me toward that pink-and-blue revolving door, pulled me in past the cheery doormen dressed as papier-mâché storks — something less profound, less scientific and more singular in its mission.
"I don’t get it,” Ella said when I got home and, excitedly, showed off my bounty.
"Just think about it,” I said.
"But you’ve made it pretty clear you don’t want a baby,” she said. "Why do we need a baby monitor?”
Did I show my frustration? I did not. I practiced, instead, what my therapist defines as a "healthy oppression of superficial emotional trauma.” I took a deep breath. I counted to ten. I reminded myself that it could be worse, much worse, that I could be an amputated refugee from a war-torn nation, or maybe just more lonely, and, above all, that intimacy is a fragile equilibrium, one that is sustained through time and patience. I exhaled.
Then I explained.
I explained how, to bring us closer, I could set up the baby monitor in the bedroom and my office. That way, I continued, I’d be able to hear Ella as she pleasured herself, which would work as an ideal soundtrack to the hot and nasty digital vixens on my screen. And, seeing from the way she was gnawing on her pale pink bottom lip that Ella was about to protest, I deftly added that this was in no way yet another "me thing,” but, in fact, a "we thing.” We would be conjoined through the modern technology of the walkie-talkie baby monitor, and we could get creative, of course, switching who was at what end of the baby monitor when. The soundtrack would belong not to me, but to we.
"What the hell’s wrong with you?” Ella said.
"Come on,” I said. "Seriously.”
Describing what happened next is difficult. You could call it a fresh start, if you’re so inclined. You could call it rekindled romance. Or you could call it going to Nasty Ned’s Pleasure Nest, a few weeks later, and purchasing a Vibrating Love Wand for Ella, and a Motorized Magic Pelvis for me, and watching Gonzo’s Gang Bang, Part 13 every Tuesday night. I really don’t care. All that mattered was that we were once again drawn to one another, purely, raptly, and that those awkward conversations and awkward moments between Ella and I were a thing of the past. A distant memory. An old joke. A game we used to play.
Well, at least up until that one moment.
That moment I’ve been wanting to tell you about the whole time.
There we were, on the couch, Ella and Wand, me and Pelvis, Gonzo and crew (Part 18), and she turned to me with a request.
"Hey?” she said.
Because of my own grunts and moans (and the TV’s), I failed to hear her clearly, and simply assumed that she was moaning and grunting, too. Then I recalled something: perhaps Ella was chiding me to say something, initiate one of the "intimacy exchanges” we had recently started initiating at the suggestion of my therapist. So I obliged her.
"Yeah baby,” I said. "Rock me, you little slut.”
"Hey?” she repeated.
"Who’s my blitzkrieg bitch?”
"Who’s your sick and twisted mommy — ”
I sat there, stupefied, naked, a Self-Secreting Motorized Magic Pelvis gyrating on my lap.
The room, just then, grew quiet, paranormally so: the TV faded, the mutual mechanical hums of Wand and Pelvis vanished, as if devoured by a black hole. The entire city, I felt, had taken on a vaporous, slow-motion texture. My stomach turned. I looked at Ella. She looked at me. There were the perfect hazel flecks skittering across her crystalline irises. Those bright little teeth. Her cheeks, her lips, her eyelashes. Her body, slathered in Larry’s Love Lube, naked and firm and glistening on the newly plastic-covered cushions. For a moment I felt calm, like nothing in the world could ever be all that bad, despite these times in which we live.
Then came Ella’s suggestion.
"Touch me,” she said.
I processed this, her words, what they meant. I was struck by the unsettling realization that I could define them each without a dictionary, with fierce articulation, that, had I not already been so passionate about my work, I could make a whole life out of teaching their meanings to more ignorant people. Touch: to come into or be in physical contact with (another thing). Me: the objective pronoun of "I.” And I thought of my therapist, and her little pen, and her legs crossing and re-crossing, and her repeated warnings about the dangers of "hyper-intellectualizing the primal.” And I thought of my mother, and how, when I’d try to hug her leg as a child, she’d snap, "Don’t!”
"Touch me,” Ella said once more.
Maybe our relationship doesn’t seem conventional to you; maybe it has appeared rife with problems from the moment I started telling you this story; maybe you have laughed at times I hoped for the opposite reaction. Fine. But please believe me when I say that I loved this woman — truly. And it was honesty that had brought us this far, and, well, I wasn’t about to start lying now.
"I can’t,” I said.
"I’m leaving,” she said.
I knew immediately that she wasn’t joking. So I then said what I’d imagine a lot of men would say. "Are you joking?”
"Nothing’s funny,” she said.
With that she stood up, grabbed the roll of paper towels I’d recently mounted in the middle of the coffee table, and hastily began wiping off the Love Lube. She muttered something about how I was "seriously demented,” and that she’d been trying all these "stupid things” for me, because she was hoping that eventually . . . honestly, I was too frazzled to pay attention. Soon enough she was slipping a spaghetti dress over her nimble shoulders and packing a suitcase.
"You’re not leaving,” I said.
"Nothing’s funny,” she said.
And she continued to repeat this, as if it were an epiphany that spoke to something larger than the present moment and she was compelled to share it with the world: that nothing was funny, that nothing was funny, that nothing was funny, as she closed the suitcase, as she removed the apartment key from her key chain and, her hand trembling, set it down on the kitchen table. "Nothing’s funny,” as she grabbed a framed photo of us skiing in Vermont and shoved it into her purse, as she grabbed another one (scuba diving in Belize) and shattered it on the kitchen floor. "Nothing’s funny!” I sat there, stupefied, naked aside from a T-shirt reading GONZO IS GOD!, a Self-Secreting Motorized Magic Pelvis gyrating on my lap, and a pair of purple and mustard argyle socks that my mother had forced me to wear when I was eight years old.
A few moments later Ella was standing at the door, tears brimming in her eyes.
"What’s happening?” I said.
"Just listen to me for a moment,” she said.
"I am listening. What’s happening?”
"I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes. "But, I mean, we were so close, really, and I still want to be close to you, I do, and sometimes I think it might be possible, and I’ve been trying but…can you please take that thing off of you for two seconds?”
"What?” I said. "But then I’ll be indecent.”
The muscles in her face tensed up, as if jolted by an electrical current, I could see her temples throb once, twice, three times. Her eyes took on a near violent glare and for a moment she seemed like she might say something something that would put everything in perspective. But instead she merely unclenched her fists, exhaled, and opened the door. Then she slammed it shut behind her.
Ella. Perfect Ella.
I stood up to run after her, to apologize, to make promises, to imitate scenes from films I despise. But this was no movie; certain logistics could not be ignored. By the time I found a pair of pants I realized there was no use: I’d run out to the street and Ella would be gone, consumed by the masses, and I’d be stuck staring at a million strangers having strange conversations and looking at me strangely. I’d be surrounded by buildings tall, flat, thoughtless buildings — windows I could see into just enough to wonder what’s inside, but not enough ever to know.